Saturday, August 29, 2009

Iraqi Shi'i Leader 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim Dies

On Wednesday (August 26), al-Sayyid 'Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of one of Iraq's largest and most powerful Shi'i political parties, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), died in Tehran, Iran, where he was being treated medically, after a lengthy battle with lung cancer. At the time of his death, the visible physical toll that the illness had caused him was stark.

Watch Reuters video of the mourning for al-Hakim.

His chief aid and expected successor as SIIC chief is his son, Sayyid 'Ammar al-Hakim. 'Abd al-'Aziz's funeral procession was attended by thousands of Iraqis and he will be buried next to his brother, Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who was assassinated in August 2003 in a massive vehicle bombing, in the Shi'i shrine city of al-Najaf in southern Iraq. Despite his illness, 'Abd al-'Aziz continued to play an influential role in his country's politics, says Iraq expert Reidar Visser, and he remained a key ally of the ruling regime in neighboring Iran. The SIIC, originally named the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was founded in November 1982 in Tehran by Iraqi exiles, under the al-Hakim brothers, with the blessing and key support of Grand Ayatullah Sayyid Ruhollah Khumayni.

A biographical sketch of the recently deceased SIIC leader is below:


'Abd al-'Aziz was born in the southern Iraqi city of al-Najaf who is sayyid, a descendant from the Prophet Muhammad and first Shi‘i Imam, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. He is a hujjat al-Islam (literally “proof of Islam”) and the current leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (hereafter SIIC), one of the two largest Iraqi Shi‘i political parties, a position he inherited upon the assassination of his brother, Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim (1940 or 1944-2003), who was assassinated by a massive car bomb in al-Najaf in August 2003. Abd al-Aziz’s father was Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhsin al-Hakim (1889-1970), the preeminent Shi‘i religious scholar and authority in Iraq from 1955 until his death in 1970. The al-Sadr family has deep roots in Iraq as one of the premier Arab Shi‘i scholarly families based in al-Najaf, where Imam ‘Ali’s shrine is located, though the family originally came from Jabal ‘Amil, a region in historical Syria which stretches across present-day southern Lebanon, northern Israel, and northern Palestine. Abd al-Aziz’s brother, Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi (1940?-1988), another activist, was assassinated in Khartoum, Sudan, most likely on the orders of Iraqi president and Iraqi Ba‘th Party chief Saddam Hussein. All three of the al-Hakim brothers studied religious subjects under both their father and then Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (1935-1980), who was one of their father’s leading students and an activist scholar who was one of the intellectual founders of the Islamic Da‘wa Party (Hizb al-Da‘wa al-Islamiyya), Iraq’s other large Shi‘i political party.

Sayyid 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim, shortly after beginning cancer treatment, meets Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Abd al-Aziz’s earliest social and political activism occurred in tandem with his father and older brothers, all of whom were actively opposed to the growing influence of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) among segments of Shi‘i youth during the 1950s and 1960s. Grand Ayatollah al-Hakim was an outspoken critic of communism and he passed a juridical opinion (fatwa) against membership in the ICP in February 1960. He was also instrumental in the formation and support of the Jama‘at al-‘Ulama (“Society of Religious Scholars”), a coalition of religious scholars (‘ulama) opposed to the growing influence of the ICP and other Iraqi secular political parties. Due to his age, Abd al-Aziz was probably not actively involved in the Jama‘at al-‘Ulama and the Islamic Da‘wa Party (Hizb al-Da‘wa Islamiyya), though his brothers were.

Following the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980 and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Abd al-Aziz and his brother, Muhammad Baqir, left Iraq for Iran, along with thousands of other Iraqi Shi‘is, many of them political activists. The ruling Iraqi Ba‘th Party had begun to crack down severely against Shi‘i political activists and other regime opponents, fearing an Iranian-style revolution led by Iraq’s long-disenfranchised Shi‘i Arab majority. Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr had been executed along with his sister, Amina bint Haydar al-Sadr (also known as Bint al-Huda), in April 1980.

Al-Hakim meets at the White House with former U.S. president George W. Bush.

In November 1982, Baqir al-Hakim announced the formation of the SIIC, then known as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which initially was an umbrella organization that brought together officials from the various Iraqi exiled opposition movements, though it eventually became its own political party as other groups broke away over policy and ideological disputes. In 1982-83, the SIIC’s paramilitary wing, the Badr Organization, was founded under Abd al-Aziz’s leadership. Badr was made up of recruits from among the Iraqi exile community living in Iran as well as Iraqi Shi‘i prisoners-of-war, who received training and equipment from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps on the instructions of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader. On the eve of the U.S. and British-led invasion of Iraq, Badr reportedly fielded 10-15,000 fighters, with a core elite group of several thousand fighters.

Abd al-Aziz and Muhammad Baqir returned to Iraq on May 12, 2003, making their way to the southern Iraqi port city of Basra, where the ayatollah gave a rousing speech in front of an estimated 100,000 Iraqi supporters in the main soccer stadium, rejecting U.S. postwar domination of the country. The al-Hakims were soon joined by thousands of SIIC members and Badr fighters who flooded into southern Iraq. Following his brother’s assassination on August 29, 2003, Abd al-Aziz assumed control of the SIIC and has since maintained a close relationship with the U.S. government, the Iranian government, and the current Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, of the Islamic Da‘wa Party.

Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim

During Abd al-Aziz’s tenure as party chief, the SIIC achieved a key electoral victory in December 2005 as part of the United Iraqi Alliance, a loose coalition of primarily Shi‘i political parties, which, together with the Kurdish political list, dominates Iraqi politics today. In the past, he has supported attempts to create a decentralized federal system, creating an autonomous Shi‘i region in southern Iraq, a move which has been repeatedly blocked by Sunni Arab politicians and Tayyar al-Sadr (Sadr Movement), the socio-political faction led by Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr. Badr officials and fighters have infiltrated the Iraqi state security forces and relevant ministries, including the Ministry of Interior. They are blamed for summarily arresting, kidnapping, torturing, and murdering Sunni Arabs, often political rivals and random civilians off of the streets, particularly in mixed Sunni-Shi‘i neighborhoods, which they seek to cleanse of Sunni Arabs. The SIIC leadership denies involvement in such attacks, despite strong evidence to the contrary. Beginning in 2004 and reaching its apogee in the spring of 2008, Badr fighters, many of them while in their capacity as Iraqi state security, have engaged in running street battles with the Sadrists over political power, reportedly seeking to weaken them before municipal elections which are tentatively scheduled for 2009. Heavy fighting under the guise of the official Iraqi state, backed by the pro-SIIC prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and the U.S. military, took place between SIIC-dominated Iraqi security forces and Sadrist fighters in Basra during the spring and early summer of 2008.

Al-Hakim meets in Tehran with Iranian supreme leader Sayyid 'Ali Khamenei

Abd al-Aziz is aided by his two sons, Muhsin (1974-) and ‘Ammar (1972-), who both head various offices and departments within the SIIC. ‘Ammar is the secretary general of the al-Mihrab Martyr Foundation, an SIIC affiliate organization which has built mosques, Islamic centers, and schools throughout southern Iraq and Shi‘i areas of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, and the second-in-command of the SIIC.

Sayyid 'Ammar al-Hakim

Adapted from an encyclopedia article I authored, forthcoming in an encyclopedia project on the U.S.' Middle East wars from ABC-CLIO.

1 comment:

Christina said...

Thank you for this writeup on such a venerable figure.
I like the photo of Moh. Bagher al-Hakim!
Didn't you have a different Reuters video which showed the cupola of the Imam Ali Mosque at Karbala before?
It was better than the ones being most generally circulated.
I have to say that I am a little cynical about the media coverage. If Abdul Aziz al-Hakim had not been favorable toward, and diplomatically handled, the U.S. presence in Iraq, he would never have been mentioned by U.S. or British media. Even so it was mainly Reuters which covered his funeral - [even those quick glimpses are deeply moving to see, but more should have been shown.]
This is not good: Americans will never get educated about the Middle East if detailed information is not given by the media about local figures, events, customs, etc with no direct bearing on American interests in the region.
That's my opinion.
PS I was shocked at his appearance: what a warning to not smoke!